The 1960s and ’70s birthed some of the most memorable movies in cinema history, and while they were the products of different studios and visionary filmmaking minds, many had one person in common – a quiet, unassuming New York graphic artist named Joe Caroff. In a virtually unprecedented string of design hits, Caroff created many iconic film logos including West Side Story (the original), A Hard Day’s Night, Rollerball, Last Tango in Paris, Cabaret, Barbarella, Manhattan, and, perhaps the most famous of all – 007.
Riding high after creating the West Side Story logo, David Chasman, United Artists’ brilliant creative director had an open assignment for a UA press release announcement of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, then in pre-production by EON Productions in England. He called in Joe, who went to the NY Public Library and looked up Bond’s favorite weapon, the Walther PPK. “I found it rather unimpressive,” the designer recounted. Caroff sketched out two zeroes and the 7 suggested itself as a gun. A few flourishes of his pencil and “007” was born. It’s been adjusted throughout the decades but has remained remarkably intact over 25 ground-breaking films. He was paid the then-going rate of $300 (roughly $3000 today) so it’s safe to say UA and the entire industry got their money’s worth. However, in 2021 Eon Productions returned the favor and sent Joe a luxurious Omega 007 watch to mark his 100th birthday. Delighted, Joe wears it with pride every day.
Caroff went on to design the poster for the Beatles first film, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, including the joyful artistic flourish of putting a knot in the guitar neck. “It does nothing, I was just having too much fun,” Joe recalled. Other projects included the main titles to 1977’s all-star war epic, A Bridge Too Far and the then-cutting-edge logo for Orion Pictures. Orion founding partner, legendary filmmaker/production executive Mike Medavoy noted that Caroff’s logo proved so popular with audiences that MGM brought the label back from retirement. Other career triumphs included the ABC Olympics logo and ABC News. Both were creative and business home runs. (After seeing the Olympic logo, which brilliantly intertwined the Olympic rings with the letters ABC, the network’s top ad man simply asked Joe to name his price.)
You’d think that with such a long history in film, Caroff’s sprawling New York City apartment would be full of posters and other memorabilia. Not so – instead the walls are covered with 60 years of Joe’s personal artwork – from sketches of the British countryside when he was a young soldier in WWII to abstract art featuring “the liberated line”, hand-carved sculptures, even an intricate balsa-wood model of a Chinese junk that Joe built himself.
In 2022, Joe was the subject of a documentary, By Design: The Joe Caroff Story, produced by this writer and editor Paul C. Rosen, that premiered on TCM (now streaming on MAX). The network held a sold-out screening at NYC’s Film Forum where Joe was treated like a century-old rock star, signing 007 photos, West Side Story album covers and other pop culture tidbits. Even today, at 102, Joe is still writing and sketching. “Once the creative urge is there, it’s there forever,” he says.